The UK national press dedicate a third day of considerable space to the state visit to Britain by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, aided and abetted by his able uber-Frau.
Nic and Carla pitched their three-ring circus sideshow in London and the media turned up in their droves to get a front row seat. Frankly, I am not surprised. From the moment Sarko was snapped at Disneyland Paris officially outing Carla Bruni – his gorgeous Italian heiress, model, singer/songwriter and erstwhile arm candy of numerous other high-profile men – I have taken more than a passing interest in the Élysée Palace spin machine. Clearly, Sarkozy is a formidable communicator and a willing puppet surrounded by a talented troupe of PRs. Everything the president does is a construct aiming for maximum PR impact.
The man with the plan and the grand wizard pulling the Sarkozy strings is none other than Thierry Saussez, an old political alchemist who has already had a hand in more than 500 election campaigns, working with leading French political figures including Jacques Chirac. Saussez, who created the communication agency Image et Stratégie Europe in 1982, has worked with Sarkozy since the 1980s.
As well as Saussez, Team Sarkozy boasts some of the brightest and shrewdest Gallic PR minds. Franck Louvrier and Laurent Solly are among the close inner circle of advisors, with an outer circle of 80 communication consultants working at the Elysée. They have moulded the image of a charming and glossy leader with the effortless power to stimulate the 24/7 media G spot.
Whenever there is something awkward for the French government to deal with, or the public start to have misgivings, then – voila! – a tasty morsel of Sarkozy’s private life is offered up as a sacrifice. Ricky Jay, the legendary magician, once wrote that a fundamental of magic is that at one point two things are happening: what appears to be going on and what really is going on. Magicians call it misdirection: they direct attention to what is irrelevant away from what is crucial. Sarkozy epitomizes the art of misdirection, assisted by his own glamorous Italian version of Debbie Magee.
Sarkozy’s public persona is one of a movie star or matinee idol, and his romance and marriage to Bruni is structured as a fabulous soap opera. It is a clever distraction, providing endless points of interest for the French people and clever intrigues set up to misdirect attention away from political blunders.
Saussez’s strategy has been to flood the media with soft stories. The objective is to feed the press with a new story every day. The volume is such that before there is time to focus on the detail of one story, another one is out there, cheating the media of commentary or analysis. Saussez has talked about how brand Sarkozy likes to keep the media on its toes, claiming that if you want to stay master of your image then you have to make the media run after you.
Sarkozy’s popularity has been due in the main to the use of TV to shape his brand. It is interesting to note that his friends, like Martin Bouygues, own many of the major media outlets. A good example is the Bouygues-owned commercial TV network TF1, which is now dubbed Tele Sarko because he is seemingly never off air. Leaning on these friends means that unflattering articles can be overpowered by this positive TV exposure.
However, the French media is becoming wary of the PR muscle leveraged on the press and television. At one recent press conference, a flock of 600 journalists was on hand to quiz the president but very few asked any probing questions.
His PR team has also sought to address negative coverage on the web, recruiting a young Nicolas Princen as “cyber spin doctor” to detect and counter internet attacks and rumours against the president. Frustrated by the satirising and ridiculing of the French leader the bright young thing constructed a campaign that tackled this negative coverage to great effect.
As time passes, it will be interesting to see if the hype generated by the triumphal London tour will refocus some of the detractors. Clearly political style over substance is the new French vogue